BMW 3 Series vs BMW 5 Series

BMW 3 Series vs BMW 5 Series: save money with BMW's cheapest saloon car, or upgrade to the bigger one?

John Evans
Aug 31, 2018

If you're looking for a family car with luxury, performance and sharp cornering, then the chances are you're considering a BMW.

Although buyers are increasingly opting for taller and more rugged  sport utility vehicles (SUVs), such as the BMW X3 or X5, the company's traditional saloon cars still sell in their thousands.

Most popular are the BMW 3 Series and BMW 5 Series, available in a huge range of specifications, from frugal hybrid cars to high-performance M models.

Jaguar's XE and XF offer a similar blend of performance and comfort, but fewer models are available; Mercedes C-Class and E-Class are generally smoother over bumpy roads, but feel less agile on corners.

BMW 3 Series vs BMW 5 Series: the main differences 

  • Prices for a 2017 BMW 3 Series start at £16,310 compared with a 2017 5 Series, which costs from £21,689
  • The 3 Series is 302mm shorter than the 5 Series (4633mm compared with 4935mm)
  • The 3 Series’ boot is smaller than the 5 Series’ (480 litres compared with 530 litres)
  • The most economical 3 Series is the 330e at 134.5mpg compared with the 530ie Performance at 141.2mpg 
  • The 5 Series has the latest infotainment system and more driver assistance systems than the 3 Series

BMW 3 Series & 5 Series design

3 Series

The 3 Series was updated in 2015 and is due to be replaced early next year. It follows all the usual BMW cues but is beginning to look a little dull and dated next to the more striking-looking Five.

5 Series

The new 5 Series takes its styling cues from its bigger brother the 7 Series, launched in 2015. In fact it’s easy to confuse them. As a result, the 5 Series looks fresher and more exciting than the more conservative 3 series.

Dimensions and weight

3 Series

The 3 Series is, naturally, smaller than the Five. For the record, it's 4633mm long, 1811mm wide and 1441mm high. Between the front and rear wheels (called the wheelbase) it’s 2810mm. This last measure is important since it’s a clue to how much occupant space there is (more about that later). The boot has a capacity of 480 litres. Depending on the model, the 3 Series weighs around 1500kg.

5 Series

Across all key measures, the Five is bigger than the Three. At 4935mm in length, 1868mm in width and 1466mm in height, it’s 302mm longer, 57mm wider and 25mm taller than the Three. Meanwhile, its wheelbase is 2975mm, or a useful 165mm longer than the Three’s. The boot is 530 litres – 50 litres larger than the Three’s. Depending on the model, it weighs around 1600kg, or 100kg more than the 3 Series.

Engines and gearbox

3 Series

There’s an array of four and six-cylinder petrol and diesel engines to choose from, ranging from the 318i petrol to the supercar-chasing 3.0-litre M3. However, at the heart of the line-up is the tried and trusted 190hp 2.0-litre diesel that lives under the bonnet of the 320d. It does 0-62mph in 7.3 seconds, returns 67.3mpg and emits 111g/km CO2. Most versions are rear-wheel drive but there are also four-wheel drive models badged xDrive. Gearboxes are a choice of six-speed manual and eight-speed automatic.

5 Series

The Five is powered by a smaller range of petrol and diesel engines than the Three, although all of them are heavily revised. The most popular is likely to be the 190hp 2.0-litre diesel. Despite having to haul a heavier car, this engine, whose power is the same as the 3 Series’ 2.0-litre diesel engine, is just as fast and slightly more economical (68.8mpg). There’s also a plug-in hybrid engine badged 530ie Performance that can return 142mpg and emissions of 46g/CO2, compared with the 330e plug-in hybrid which returns 134.5mpg but a lower 44g/km CO2.
Like the Three, the 5 Series is rear-wheel drive with the option of xDrive four-wheel drive on some versions. Gearboxes are, again, a choice of six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic.

 

Driving impressions

3 Series

The 3 Series is a compact, agile sports saloon that even at this stage in its life, runs ring around the opposition. Engines are powerful and responsive, the rear-drive set-up makes cornering a delight (xDrive provides added security in the wet) and it has a supple ride that masks all but the worst bumps.

5 Series

Like the 3 Series, the new Five beats its rivals on most performance measures. Still rear-wheel drive (or xDrive if you wish), lighter, riding on a new, more sophisticated suspension system and powered by a heavily worked range of responsive engines, it’s without equal in its class. What raises it above the 3 Series is its crucial extra dollop of ride and refinement. It’s just as agile but luxurious with it.

 

Interior

3 Series

The 3 series’ dashboard looks reasonably modern and sporty with its wraparound dash, low button count and large centre screen. As you’d expect, fit and finish, and material quality are first-class. There’s a large control wheel for the iDrive infotainment system conveniently located next to the gearlever. The system is intuitive and the presentation is crystal clear.

5 Series

Not surprisingly, the new 5 Series has a much more modern-looking cabin than the older Three. The dashboard has obviously been inspired by the larger, more luxurious 7 Series, and features a much more wraparound design. A large 10.25-inch centre touchscreen is optional and likely to be specified by most owners. There’s a greater variety of textures and materials, and the fit and finish is superb.

Space and practicality

3 series

Given its smaller dimensions, in particular its shorter wheelbase, you’d expect the 3 Series to feel cramped and certainly less comfortable than the larger Five. But while the Five is roomier, the Three is no squeeze. There’s decent head and legroom for all occupants. The rear centre passenger is forced to place their feet either side of the bulky transmission tunnel, however, making long journeys a chore. The boot is a decent size and well shaped, while the reasonably priced optional 40:20:40 split rear seat means you can stow longer loads and still carry one or two passengers.

5 Series

Inevitably the larger 5 Series is roomier all round than the Three. It’s especially noticeable in the back where there’s usefully more head, leg and elbow room. However there’s still a transmission tunnel to contend with, although this time there’s more space for the centre passenger. With 50 litres of additional boot space, the Five is more practical than the Three, at least on paper. In reality it’s spoiled by some awkward intrusions but like the Three, you can specify folding rear seats that alleviate the problem.

 

Technology

3 Series

As an older car, the Three lacks the cutting edge technology and driver assist features found in the just-launched Five. Not that it’s lacking in gadgets and safety gizmos. There’s a sat nav, the excellent iDrive system, a large centre screen and a host of optional driver assist features ranging from blind-spot and lane assist to active cruise control. However, in most respects, the new Five leaves it standing.

5 Series

When talking about any BMW you have to be careful to distinguish between standard and optional equipment. The new Five is no exception but it does have a higher level of standard kit than not only its predecessor but also the 3 Series. Standard is a 10.25-inch centre touchscreen which, as an option, you can operate by gesture control, a feature first seen on the 7 Series where you waggle your fingers to adjust the volume and access various services. The standard head-up display is larger than before, and absent on the 3 Series. The sat nav is much more advanced, too.
However, where the new Five pushes its smaller 3 Series sibling firmly into last week, is in its array of optional, autonomous driving technologies. Given clear road markings it can drive itself at speeds up to 130mph, steering as it does so. It will change lanes, too, if the driver has checked it’s safe to do so and operates the indicator stalk. In slow-moving jams it can also follow the car in front. However, its party trick is being able to park itself with the driver outside the car operating it via a special, optional key.

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